Spirits in the gallery

The art world warms to native works

PAMELA YOUNG November 13 1989

Spirits in the gallery

The art world warms to native works

PAMELA YOUNG November 13 1989

Spirits in the gallery


The art world warms to native works

At the Oct.26 opening of a show at the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver, a winesipping crowd of 300 parted to make way for seven barefoot, ceremonially robed Nishga Indian dancers. One of them, a heavyset, keen-eyed man in his 40s, gestured to the works on the walls—vivid wooden masks carved by some of the most renowned North-

west Coast native artists. 1 his is a gathering of the spirits; they are the masks, they are looking down at you,” he said. “Look around— there is a lot of power in this building tonight.” Those who looked closely could also see that most of the masks already had red dots on the white title cards beneath them, indicating that they had been sold. Indeed, collectors had lined up outside the gallery at 4:30 that morning, llh hours before the masks went on sale at prices of up to $12,000. Said Inuit Gallery owner Joseph Murphy:

“Native art has traditionally been looked at as a curio or ethnographic artifact. Now, we’re saying this is art.”

North American dealers are finding that the market for highcalibre native art is thriving. Murphy, who sells Canadian Inuit,

Northwest Coast Indian and Papua New Guinea art from the Gastown district gallery he opened in 1979, says that his annual sales now exceed $1 million. Native Canadians number among the country’s most internationally prominent artists.

One of the most respected is 69year-old Haida sculptor, printmaker and metalsmith Bill Reid, 69.

Paris’s Museum of Man has 16 of the Vancouver artist’s creations.

And pieces of his gold jewelry often sell for more than $50,000 in New York City galleries. Masks carved by Reid’s former protégé, Robert Davidson, a Surrey, B.C.-based Haida, fetch $15,000 or more.

On the whole, however, art by the Inuit of Canada’s Far North is better known internationally than work by the country’s other native peoples. Inuit pieces are setting record prices on the auction market—and are appearing in esteemed company at international shows. Last December, Inuit works were included for the first time at the annual Los Angeles invitational ART/LA, alongside Andy Warhol canvases

and Henry Moore sculptures. And in the summer of 1989, an exhibition of more than 100 works by contemporary Inuit artists of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia was held at the United Nations. But the Inuit art world is also undergoing major changes: as the North becomes more accessible, many established artists are forsaking the co-ops that have tradi-

tionally marketed their work. Instead, they are beginning to deal directly with southern entrepreneurs.

Because of the current widespread popularity and availability of contemporary Inuit art, it seems remarkable that such work was relatively unknown—and indeed, scarcely existed— 40 years ago. In the late 1940s, James Houston, a federal government administrator from Toronto, travelled north and convinced Inuit in many communities that they could ease their financial hardship by carving objects for the southern marketplace. Together with his wife,

Alma, he founded the now-famous Cape Dorset printmaking workshop on Baffin Island. The northern co-op movement, which began in 1959, made it simpler for creators to obtain art supplies and to market the finished products. Carving prospered, and printmaking centres in Baker Lake, N.W.T., and other communities also began to enjoy considerable success.

Last month, collectors lined up at galleries throughout North America and in West Germany when the 30th annual set of Cape Dorset prints was released. The 30 stylized, richly hued graphics were produced in limited runs of no more than 50 prints, which sell for between $250 and $600. Last summer, a copy of one of the most famous Cape Dorset prints, The Enchanted Owl (1960) by Kenojuak Ashevak, sold for $17,000 at Waddington’s auction house in Toronto.

With its vibrant imagery and strong, clean Unes, Inuit art appeals to a wide range of collectors. Lucy Herman, a learning-disabilities specialist from Norfolk, Va., and her husband, Fredrick, a retired architect, collected European Old Master drawings for more than four decades—and then switched to Inuit art three years ago after a trip to Alaska. They now own 39 Inuit works by artists including Cape Dorset’s Ashevak and sculptor Levi Qumaluk of Povungnituk, Que. Herman says that she and her husband prefer the work of older Inuit artists—because it has “more emotional impact.”

But the Waddington’s auction last May demonstrated that some younger artists are also generating excitement. The hottest attraction on the auction block was a bone sculpture by Davie Atchealak, 42, of Pangnirtung on Baffin Island. Executed in a style that is more realistic than traditional Inuit works, the carving of a bare-chested man beating a drum sold to a private collector for $45,100. The sum was a world record for Inuit art in an auction and more than twice the presale estimate.

Among the other works that fared well at the sale was a whalebone spirit carving by Spence Bay, N.W.T., artist Karoo Ashevak— no relation to the Cape Dorset prints artist—who died in a fire in 1974 when he was 34. His whimsically fierce spirit figure—a head with a distorted face on either side, supported by stubby legs—sold for $28,000. Said Duncan McLean, the head of Inuit art at Waddington’s: “If the buying public weren’t confident that this was a legitimate, viable art. form, I don’t think you would see works going for these prices.”

Next March, Waddington’s will hold another auction of native art. Most of the works included will be Inuit, but there will also be some Indian antiquities. To date, there has been little demand for contemporary Canadian Indian art

at auctions; the work that does sell tends to have historical value. According to McLean, there is a regional factor involved: he says that people who collect contemporary Indian art are most likely to buy the work that is produced in their own part of the country.

Meanwhile, two of Canada’s national institutions, the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., and the National Gallery in Ottawa, have changed their approach to contemporary native art. When the Museum of Civilization opened its new building in July, one of the attractions was its Native Art Gallery. The space’s function is to showcase Indian and Inuit objects as art rather than artifact. Its first show, In the Shadow of the Sun, features 250 works by contemporary native artists. Many pieces are political, addressing such issues as pollution. In the past, the National Gallery left the collecting of native work primarily to museums. But in the mid-1980s, it began developing an Inuit collection of its own. Its new building opened in 1988 with a gallery devoted to Inuit works. Said Marie Routledge, the National Gallery’s curator of Inuit art: “There was the realization that Inuit art had indeed become a strong and vital part of the Canadian art picture.”

But, at the same time that Inuit creations are gaining recognition as mainstream Canadian art in the South, the North is changing rapidly. The region is becoming more and more accessible, and, as a result, many of the most prominent sculptors sell their work directly to

southern entrepreneurs, bypassing the locally owned co-operatives of their community. Terrence Ryan, the managing director of the West Baffin Co-operative Ltd., where the Cape Dorset prints are made, said that he regrets the change. Added Ryan, who has worked with the Cape Dorset community since 1960: “Any market is better served if there is some assumed control of that market.” But he said that

it is “not realistic to expect things to stay the same.”

Still, the vast majority of artists, especially those who are younger and less established, continue to rely on the co-ops. As well as handling art, the 11 co-ops in Northern Quebec and their 34 counterparts in the Northwest Territories bring groceries, clothing and other supplies into their communities. Last year, the N.W.T. group had total art revenues of more than $15 million. Activities of most of the Northwest Territories co-ops are co-ordinated by their wholesaler, Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. (ACL) in Winnipeg. For the past year, ACL has bridged vast distances with the new technology of a video-telephone hookup. Using satellite transmission, the co-ops can send images of a work of art to Winnipeg, where ACL buyers can assess the piece’s value.

In recent years, social and technological changes have transformed the marketing of native art. Arctic animals and hunters have been staple subjects of Inuit art, but now living off the land is a vanishing lifestyle. In the age of the snowmobile and satellite TV, the traditional subjects are losing their relevance, and it remains to be seen whether younger Inuit artists can depict their own realities—and still appeal to the southern market.

Meanwhile, many Indian artists are trying to revive old artistic traditions that went into decline after colonization of the New World and, at the same time, create art that is relevant to the current world. At the recent opening of the Northwest Coast native masks show at the Inuit Gallery, master Haida carver Davidson declared: “There is so much excitement about these creations here tonight.” But he added a note of warning: “Now, we have to give meaning to these creations—otherwise, they become just another commodity.”

PAMELA YOUNG with DIANE TURBIDE in Toronto and DEREK WOLFF in Vancouver